From Houdini to street magic, art of illusion goes on
Kids sit on a darkened stage at St. Mary's school, eyes rapt in their attention, mouths open in a how-did-he-do-that expression. One by one, little thrills and minor miracles emerge from a time-worn trunk. A coloring book colors itself before the children's eyes, the head from a wooden doll somehow leaps from a handkerchief held by a small boy across the stage back onto the body, and a great gasp goes up from the little ones.
This is the moment Cletus Henke lives for. It's magic, pure magic.
And it's his life story.
"When I was a young man just back from World War II, I happened to the Clay County Fairgrounds. I found myself at a magician's stand there, and I was just suckered in from that moment on. It's almost like an addiction. He sold me a deck of magic cards, and I've been at it ever since," said Cletus.
Not one to take lightly to playing the sucker, he learned to work that deck of cards like a master, until "it seemed like those cards could do anything I wanted them to."
He was recently honored by the International Brotherhood of Magicians as he celebrates his 50th year of magic performance. With an average of 200 shows a year for his career, he's done perhaps nearly 10,000 gigs. And still, every time he can draw that gasp out of a child, it's as new as the first day.
Never a show goes by without someone coming up afterward and wanting to know the secret to a trick. And never once has he given one away.
"I do magic to give people fun. Once they know how it's done, it isn't fun anymore. It stops being magical and starts being just a trick. So I'll never reveal a secret," he said. "And honestly, the secret usually isn't as much a trick as it is hard work, knowing people, and the fact that the hand is quicker than they eye. That's all I'm going to say."
Henke still lives on the farm where he was born, southwest of Cherokee. Some might think that it's a strange combination to be a career farmer and a master of illusion, but actually, the pairing of seasonal farm work with magic has given him the time to plan tricks, practice them and book shows across a five-state area.
Early in his career, he mastered one skill after another. Card tricks, vanishings, rope tricks, mind reading. "The hardest trick I ever learned was the famous Chinese Linking Rings - you start with 12 solid, separate rings, and in the course of the trick, you turn them into a chain of linked rings," he said. "If not for my mother, I never would have learned that one. She was the one who kept on me and told me I can't give up. It took six weeks, but it was a wonderful illusion."
Another favorite is a mind-reading illusion he calls 'The Crystal Glass," in which he has four people from the audience write down what they are thinking on pieces of paper, and he is able to tell each of them what their message was, and is proved out once those pieces of paper are revealed. "There's no secret to it, but people really like that one," he said.
Henke will tackle any crowd, and tailors every show to fit. His act goes over just as big in a nursing home or an anniversary event as it does for a birthday party for 4-year-olds.
"That's the beautiful thing about magic. More than any other kind of entertainment, it works for everyone, and every age. You just choose tricks that your audience will like - I don't do mind reading with young children, for example, because they aren't ready for that, and they tend to like stuff that is very colorful and visual," he said.
Magic has also been a family affair. When they were growing up, all three of his children - including his twin sons - played roles in the show, and later, his grandchildren took over.
"The greatest trick I ever did was called The Substitute Trunk," he said. "I would have two people come up out of the audience and examine this trunk. Then I would put one of the twins into a bag, and then put the bag into the trunk, lock it, and tie ropes all around it so that there was no place to escape. And then the magic, and the boy would be out of the trunk, standing in front of the crowd. The audience members would help to take all the ropes off and open the lock, and they would find the other twin now inside the trunk.
"Those boys were amazing at that trick. They got to the point where they could complete the switch in three seconds flat, while the audience counted it out. It was a wonderful trick. But now the children are grown, and the grandchildren have gotten too big, and I'm afraid The Substitute Trunk is in mothballs for good."
Sadly, one of the twins, who was grooming himself to follow in his father's footsteps with his love for magic, later died of cancer. "I miss him so," the magician said, losing his trademark grin for a brief moment.
Cletus never took a course in magic, preferring to learn every trick his way rather than copy some other magician's style.
His is a laid-back, elegant style. he likes his audience gathered around up close where he can talk to them and enjoy their smiles back, just like the St. Mary's kids are.
"I love people, and this is the way I've found to be with people all of the time, and share in a little of their joy. They get the magic show, but I get the chuckles out of them, and it's a pretty good deal for me," he said.
"The word magic to me means that expression on the audience's face when they've seen something they can't quite believe. No matter if they are young and old, they have that same expression."
He never advertised, and never tries to "sell" his show. "The only way I ever do a show is because someone has seen me perform and tells someone else. That's how I get around, and I do get around."
He seldom travels alone, however. On stage, he produces a snowy dove, and gently makes it disappear again. With a flourish, he pulls a bowl of swimming goldfish or a bouquet of fresh flowers out of nowhere.
Let the gasping begin.
"Kids do say the darndest things. More than once I've done a show for the little ones, and quite some time later, a letter will show up an my house in a child's writing, saying, 'Hey, where did that bird go?'"
He's seen magic go from the classical influences of the great Houdini to the Las Vegas lounge acts to the massive-scale televised illusions to the rock-star-like street magicians of today.
"Every generation revises magic, but its really the same thing with a new look. In my generation, the magician wore a tux, and now it's long hair and strange clothes. But magic is still there, and it still works," he said. "Even with all the technology today, magic will still be around in the future. People still love to try to figure out an illusion that they can see right in front of their eyes."
Henke said he has tried and conquered just about every type of trick that can be done, at least every type that can fit into a modest farmhouse or travel in a well-broken-in trunk. "I suppose I could go big with tricks, but I'm happy doing my shows the way they are," he said. "It's still fun."
After 50 years at center stage, he doesn't know how many more shows he has in him, he admits.
"I'll go as long as my mind is sharp and my shape is in decent shape," he smiles. "As you get up that ladder of age, a notice that I'm more likely to grab for a card and miss. But still, when you do a show and see the brightness that magic holds for people, see them just come alive, you don't ever want to stop."
So after 10,000 shows and half a century, another generation of kids gathers around Cletus Henke, master magician. They "oooh" and they "aaah" right on cue and he waves his cane and beams back at them. He's already booked for next weekend, and life is, well, it's downright magical.
One day, when it is time, he will do his ultimate illusion, he says, and make himself disappear from the footlights. And he will take his secrets with him.